Hot Docs 2013: ‘ALIAS’ Review


Film Pulse Score

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Release Date: April 26, 2013 (Hot Docs)
Director: Michelle Latimer
MPAA Rating: NR
Film Pulse Score: 5/10

When you think about Canada, the first thoughts that come to mind are probably not about gangster rap in Toronto.  For some reason simply mentioning Canadian gangster rap gives me a little chuckle.  How hard can you be if you frequently use the phrase “Eh” in your everyday speech? I know these are US born generalizations of our friends to the North, but I was still interested to see what Canadian gangster rap is like.  Not surprisingly, it’s exactly like everywhere else across the globe and while Michelle Latimer’s documentary ALIAS is competently made, the story just isn’t there to make it a strong recommendation.

ALIAS follows a group of underground hip hop artists in Toronto as they try to make a living as rappers while supporting their families and keeping the bills paid. We see them perform on stage, hit the record studio, and shoot music videos.  Though their lives may not be as glamorous as what we see on TV, they are still much better off than many of the lost souls that grew up around them in the projects.

At its core, this is a film about determination and perseverance. All the subjects of this film had difficult upbringings and are trying the best they can to elevate themselves above their surroundings.  Making a living being a rapper is an insanely difficult task in today’s world, and the film also explores this topic.  The biggest issue with all of this however, is that we’ve seen it all before.

If the rappers the film highlighted were bringing something new to the table, or oozing with talent, or doing anything at all to elevate the art form it might provide a more interesting watch.  Unfortunately, they all seemed like generic rappers rhyming about the same things that all gangster rappers rhyme about.  The film gets into the personal lives of these individuals, however it doesn’t delve too deeply into them, so it doesn’t feel like we know them on a personal level either.

As a former DJ and hip hop connoisseur myself, I know that there is a lot of great underground hip hop coming out of the  great white North, with MCs like Buck 65, Josh Martinez, and even more mainstream acts like Swollen Members.  While it’s understandable that this film set out to showcase the struggling artists rather than more established ones, it might have been more effective if the filmmakers cast a wider net in order to truly capture the hip hop scene in Toronto.

On a technical level, the film works at what its setting out to do.  It’s a traditionally shot documentary with no flashy camera work or super slow motion shots, which helps us keep focus on the characters.  It’s evenly paced and does a good job of not sticking with any one subject for too long before jumping to the next.

ALIAS is a documentary that is probably best suited to be viewed by people that live in Toronto and have an interest in local hip hop.  For these people, it may be interesting to get a behind the scenes look at the local artists they go see at shows, however there’s not a lot here for a wider audience to really grab on to.